John Innes collection of rare botanical books helps science communication project

Guest Blog by Melanie Robb

A recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, I first became interested in the historical collection of the John Innes Centre library during a Science Communication project in my final year – this involved researching plants with medicinal properties for a new garden to be opened on campus later this year (the Modern Physic Garden, or MPG) and writing content for the forthcoming website, including images and historical references.  After discovering that the JIC had its own collection of rare botanical texts, we felt this could be a useful resource as well as providing an opportunity for collaboration between the UEA and JIC.  A subsequent visit revealed a rich collection of works, including rare herbals and books of medical botany which we otherwise would not have had access to.  Outreach Curator Sarah Wilmot was incredibly helpful in locating and providing digitised images from some of the books in the collection, enabling us to include some beautiful botanical artwork in our content for the website.

Since graduating I have continued with this project as an intern working with Dr Laura Bowater (UEA) and have been able to maintain the relationship developed with staff at the John Innes Historical Collections (JIHC) – we are now working together to create a set of digitised images of medicinal plants which will feature on the MPG website.

A selection of botanical images digitised at the JIHC, taken from Woodville’s Medical Botany, 3rd Ed. (1832), one of the many books on medical botany in the John Innes Historical Collections


Lavender (Lavendula spica)


Chilli (Capsicum)


Hops (Humulus lupulus)


Saffron (Crocus sativa)




A brief history of physic gardens

Humans have been collecting and cultivating plants for their medicinal values for millennia and there is no doubt that these would have been grown in dedicated gardens throughout history. However the first formal ‘physic’ gardens appeared in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century and the trend soon spread across Europe, with the first opening in the UK at Oxford University in 1621. These gardens started out as collections of medicinal plants which were used as educational resources for apothecaries, doctors and students of medicine. Within a couple of centuries however, physic gardens declined in popularity and use for a number of reasons, in particular:

  • improvements in printing technology enabled mass production of medical and botanical texts and there was less need for dedicated gardens for learning
  • at the same time the ‘age of exploration’ led to the discovery of thousands of new plant species which were collected and displayed in botanic gardens, many of which had started life as physic gardens

Although Britain has a rich history of botanic gardens, only a handful of stand-alone physic gardens are open to the public today (eg: Chelsea, Dilston, Cowbridge and Petersfield Physic gardens). The Modern Physic Garden at the UEA will celebrate the historical value of maintaining a collection of useful medicinal plants whilst bringing the idea into the 21st Century. Many modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plant-based medicines which have been used in folklore and herbalism for centuries and it is this connection between past, present and future health, which the MPG aims to represent.

About the Modern Physic Garden

The brainchild of Dr Laura Bowater, the Modern Physic Garden will offer the opportunity for students, researchers and the public to come together to explore the role of plants in society today. The garden will take inspiration from the science, history and culture of important and useful plants, with an emphasis on local resources and current plant science research here at the Norwich Research Park.  Due to open in October 2015, there will be several themes within the garden, including:  pharmaceuticals, clothing, building, energy, food and drink.


Using the historical collection in an outreach project:

Some of the images already provided by the JIHC have been used in an outreach project in collaboration with Dr Laura Bowater.  This art and science collaborative venture was funded by North West Norfolk Decorative & Fine Art Society (NWNDFAS) and involved local glass artists ( working with Burnham Primary School. The project used the inspiration of plants from the Physic Garden to encourage the school pupils to design a series of glass labels for their own personal use. They also took part in a competition to design a glass plant label to be displayed and used in the garden. Botanical images from JIHC were used as inspiration for the children’s artwork, while they also learned about the uses and scientific features of their chosen plants.

3B. SALT glass studios. BMPS for Glass Art Workshop for Plant lables for the UEA MPG, NADFAS.25.6.15.Photo Credit ©


I have really enjoyed working with the JIHC – as someone who is passionate about botany, history and science it has been a wonderful opportunity to view rare works of historical importance and to display some of this work to the public in a modern context.  I believe that being able to access and use this valuable resource has added depth and interest to the work of communicating plant science.



Glass signs designed by schoolchildren at Burnham Primary School, copyright SALT glass studios:


©SALT glass studios23 BMPS School Garden Plant LabelsDSCF9658

Salt glass labels 2

Salt Glass labels 1


The John Innes Historical Collections are open to the public by appointment. Get in touch if you have an idea for science communication that you think we might help with!








, , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply